Groupthink: blinded by "I'm right"

A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. As the brain gets older it learns to process, to analyze, to interpret. And eventually it begins to slow, begins to forget, begins to lose function.

Few prospects are as forbidding as mental decline, the specter of which haunts us as we advance toward old age. And so the experts tell us to keep our minds active, that using the brain is the surest way to stave off mental deterioration.

Crossword puzzles. Sudoku. Word games. Logic problems. These are common recipes from the diet books for the mind. Go traveling. Take up knitting or gardening. Learn Italian. Drive a different way to work. Get an advanced degree. Anything and everything that piques cognitive activity belongs in our catalogue of mental health activities.

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Healthy disagreement

“That’s all good,” says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind and New York Times health and medical science editor. But the most intriguing advice Ms. Strauch has heard is this: “Deliberately challenge your view of the world. Talk to people you totally disagree with.”

It makes sense. Nothing kicks the brain into overdrive like having to defend your point of view against attack, or the desire to dismantle an argument you find unsound or wrongheaded. What’s more, Ms. Strauch asserts that the brain is actually primed for questioning assumptions, since reexamining our beliefs provides the opportunity to revisit, or more deeply contemplate, why we believe the way we do.

“Confronting things you disagree with may not make you change your mind,” she says, “but it will perhaps give you a view that is more satisfying to the middle-aged brain.”

And who knows? Sometimes we may even discover that we’ve been wrong.

If someone expresses an opinion you don't agree with, are you more likely to...

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Don’t rock the boat?

Bill Bishop would almost certainly agree. In his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Mr. Bishop shows how local communities are becoming increasingly homogenous as people sort themselves into demographic cliques. The most striking irony is how the increasing singularity of ideas and values in neighborhoods across the country is resulting in increasing divisiveness throughout the country as a whole.

The statistical evidence is compelling. The 2004 reelection of George W. Bush over John Kerry was decided nationally by one closely contested state (Ohio) and a sliver of the electorate; in the same election, almost half the counties in the country recorded landslide victories locally for either one candidate or the other, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1976.

Mr. Bishop describes how economic and geographical mobility allowed people to orient themselves around and among others who share their beliefs, values, and predilections. Members of religious and civic organizations have become increasingly uniform in their ways of thinking, particularly with respect to politics.

Citing marketing analyst J. Walker Smith, Mr. Bishop explains how a pervasive movement of “self-invention” gave rise to a desire to impose our will upon the world around us, to redefine ourselves and our environment according to our own narrow world view. According to Mr. Smith, prosperity and technology have enabled people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making.” We expect the world to be the way we want it to be, with no room for compromise.

Mr. Bishop reaches the conclusion that:

As people seek out the social settings they prefer — as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable — the nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.

U.S. Presidential Elections by Popular Vote

Election Year
National Margin of Victory
Landslide Counties
1968
0.7%
37.2%
1992
5.5%
37.7%
2000
-0.5%
45.3%
2004
2.4%
48.3%

When you express an opinion, what reaction do you prefer?

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Worse than being wrong

The more single-minded a group becomes in its opinions, the more calcified its thinking becomes in its evaluation of unfamiliar ideas, and the more quickly it rejects and condemns opposing viewpoints. Homogenous groups are increasingly likely to indulge in stereotyping, rationalization, complacency, peer pressure, self-censorship, a sense of moral superiority, and an appearance of unanimity that creates the illusion of invulnerability. Once-rational arguments devolve into dogma and character assassination.

The resulting groupthink has been blamed for the construction of the French Maginot line, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, U.S. failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and involvement in the Vietnam War, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and the financial collapse of 2008.

But there really is nothing new under the sun. Nearly 3000 years ago, King Solomon anticipated this very state of affairs when he observed that, Iron sharpens iron, and a man sharpens the mind of his fellow (Proverbs 27:17).

In a world plagued by ideological self-segregation, it’s easy to recognize Solomon’s wisdom in comparing iron blades that sharpen one another to iron wills that hone syllogistic reasoning to a fine edge. Indeed, the great Talmudic scholars of 2000 years ago debated in the tradition of Solomon, arguing with a ferocity described as fighting “with swords and spears.” Nevertheless, they retained a level of mutual respect as impressive as their erudition, establishing a standard and style of scholarship that defines Talmudic discourse until today.

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A Brief History of Democracy

  • 508 BCE -- Athenian citizens vote directly for proposed legislation
  • 1215 -- English nobles force KIng John to sign the Magna Carta, the beginning of constitutional monarchy
  • 1651 -- In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes establishes social contract theory
  • 1688 -- The Glorious Revolution in England leads to the first Bill of Rights
  • 1762 -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract articulates the principle of popular sovereignty
  • 1787 -- The United States Constitution creates the system of checks and balances
  • 1789 -- The French Revolution heralds the beginning of the end of European monarchies

All for one

Even with respect to practical jurisprudence, Talmudic law was so concerned with legal objectivity that if the Sanhedrin, the ancient high court of 71 sages, voted for conviction in a capital case without a single dissension, the death penalty could not be given. No matter how overwhelming the evidence, the ancients would not trust their own objectivity if none of their members could find at least one mitigating factor. By the same token, two brothers were not permitted to testify together in rabbinic court, since they might share a common perspective that could compromise their objectivity.

Democratic government was intended to stimulate debate, to create transparency, to hold public servants accountable to the will of the people. The democratic process was never intended to become a popularity contest in which candidates pander to voters or attempt to manipulate them with scare tactics or empty rhetoric. Even its most ardent supporters were never blind to its shortcomings, as is clear from Winston Churchill’s remark that,

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Nevertheless, with literally billions of dollars now spent on marketing, sloganeering, parodies, and sound bites, it’s hard not to conclude that the system is broken. If we want to have any hope for real change, we have to be willing to understand the other side before we condemn it.


Adapted from my not-yet published book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages.

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